In my semi-maniacal pursuit of frequent flier miles, I begin my December trip with a flight to Atlanta, then to Nashville, back to Atlanta, then to San Francisco, back to Atlanta, then Nashville again, then Detroit, where I board a non-stop to Shanghai. Why? Bonuses, bonuses, and more bonuses.
But I'm not really going to Shanghai. After an overnight stopover (free, courtesy of hotel bonus points) I board the 200 mph bullet train for Hangzhou, where I will catch an ultra-cheap flight on Air Asia to their hub in Kuala Lumpur. The train trip only takes forty minutes; I then spend another forty minutes in a taxi on the highway headed back towards Shanghai to get the Hangzhou airport.
Boarding is delayed by 40 minutes. No problem: I have two and a half hours for my connecting flight. The problem arises once we pull back from the gate and the pilot announces and indefinite hold by air traffic control. We sit for over two hours until departure clearance is granted. We arrive three hours late; I've missed my connection.
There's an airport hotel, but it's full. It's almost midnight, and it's an hour drive into the city. I would have just enough time to take a shower and head back to the airport for the 5 AM check-in time for the first flight in the morning. So, I don't. Instead, I park myself in an all-night cafe and play on the internet. My waiting companion is an Aussie in a similar predicament for a different reason: he got drunk and slept through his boarding announcement. I am sure he is aiming for a repeat performance when he orders a bucket of six beers.
Sumatra is just over from the Malay Peninsula and up from Java. It is the sixth largest island in the world, over a thousand miles long and half again larger than Britain. Medan, its largest city, is about two-thirds of the way up. The flight takes under an hour. Mercifully, the airport is right in town. I arrive at my hotel about twelve hours late and very tired. I do a bit of exploring, and then spend the Afternoon sleeping. In the evening I meet up with my Vancouver buddy, just arrived from Bangkok, to plan the balance of our trip.
We spend the next day checking out the limited sights of Medan. There is the mosque and the now-shabby Sultan's palace (partly still occupied by his down-at-the-heels relatives).
The city is notable primarily for its traffic jams and a large collection of art deco buildings that in most other cities would be restored as architectural jewels but here are abandoned or converted into parking structures.
Throughout the day we are accosted by college girls in hijabs (Muslim head coverings) on assignment to interview a foreign tourist. Most have been searching all day for one. They all have the same list of silly questions (e.g., what are your favorite places in Sumatra? I don't know, we just got here), but they are very friendly and a few even attractive.
We’ve hired a car and driver for four days. We start the next day with a trip to Bukit Lawang national park, home to a large orangutan population. It's about fifty miles distant, which translates into a two and a half hour drive each way. Just as we arrive, it starts raining (it's the rainy season). A guide tells us that high water prevents access to the orang feeding platform and that the only way to see apes is by hiring a private guide (namely him, at munificent fee). By now the rainy is getting serious, so we don ponchos and head out into the jungle. The problem, says the guide, is that the apes don't like to get wet either. During respite in the downpour, we get lucky: a big hairy orange gal comes down from the trees to accept our proffered bananas. She's got a young 'un, but he is more reticent. An excellent wildlife encounter and photo opportunity although he sold us a wolf ticket &mdash we later meet some folks who did go the feeding platform that day; it was open, but they didn't see a thing.)
We return to Medan for the night, and the next day leave for Lake Toba, five hours distant. Enroute we stop at the Paten factory where they make and sell such popular confections as Tengteng, Tingting, Tangtang, Tongtong, Tungtung, Pangpang, Pingping, Pongpong (but, alas, no Pingpong).
The area around the lake is home to the Batak people, a tribal ethnicity quite distinct from the Malay Muslim majority. Cannibals until succumbing to the entreaties of missionaries, they now practice an exotic blend of Christianity and pagan customs. Of particular interest are their elaborate tombs. On the road from Medan we encounter a Batak funeral in progress and are enthusiastically welcomed to join in line-dancing around the open coffin while a band plays jaunty tunes.
Lake Toba is a relic of a huge volcanic caldera that last erupted 70,000 years ago, an event that nearly caused the extinction of mankind. (Worldwide population is estimated to have dwindled to perhaps 10,000.) In the center of the lake an island has arisen, our destination. We drive to the lakeside town of Parapat, and then take a ferry to Tuk Tuk on the island opposite, where we check into the delightful Tabo Cottages.
Driving around the island the next day we visit the museum, see tribal dancing staged for tourists (there are about six of us), and check out some megalithic relics. I break my vow not to buy anything on this trip (I am traveling with hand luggage only) and acquire a wholly-cool, six-foot carved totem-stick.
Dinner is freshly grilled lake fish. In the morning, back on the ferry and to Medan to catch an afternoon flight to Padang. (Driving is an option, but it takes at least sixteen hours over terrible roads.) During the short flight during we cross the equator and enter the southern hemisphere.
Padang is on the west coast of Sumatra, facing the Indian Ocean; about half way down the island. On September 30th, 2009, a major earthquake flattened much of the city, including all the hotels. A few small hotels have been built since, able to charge extortionate rates to the international aid bureaucrats who flooded in and stay on &mdash parked in front of ours is a white UN vehicle. (I am sure that the stricken populace was delighted to see reconstruction efforts directed to building hotels for foreigners.) The hotel prides itself on being strictly Muslim &mdash atop each bed are a prayer rug and a gilt-edged Koran.
The next day we hire a car to take us to Bukittinggi, a highlands resort town a couple of hours distant. On the way, the driver shows us photos he took right after the earthquake, displaying them on a video screen mounted right below the rear-view mirror (an innovative safety feature, I think). Illustrating how the Southeast Asian brand of Islam is less hard-core, he explains that, as a good Muslim, he is forbidden from drinking alcohol, except for beer.
Bukittinggi has a good local market, a couple of colonial constructions, a sorry zoo, and a WWII Japanese tunnel complex, all of which we visit. I contribute to the economy by adding a fine specimen to my batik shirt collection along with a distinctive black velvet cap (Sukarno/Suharto style). Making me to feel like I am still in Jacksonville, the shopkeeper than places my purchase into a Winn-Dixie bag!
People come here to escape the summer here, which isn’t a problem this time of year. There are lots of hotels undamaged by the quake and we considered staying overnight. Glad we didn’t because other than hiking the surrounding hills and visiting distant villages there’s nothing to do or see. Instead, we drive back to Padang and kill the next day walking around checking out the earthquake damage and buying packing materials to ship our totem sticks. Tourism, scant prior to the temblor, is now nonexistent, 'cepting us.
Padang has lent its name to a style of restaurant popular all over Indonesia. Twenty or thirty bowls of unidentifiable food substances are heaped before you; those that you eat, sample, or play with get charged to you, the balance are served to the next victim. No, thank you. Instead we opt for fish, so fresh that it looks like it was pulled from the sea minutes ago, grilled to order over charcoal.
That's it for Sumatra. We split up: my buddy to Bali, Bangkok, and Libya; and me to Vietnam.
(Note: pictures are very sparse in the following section. Details infra.)
I fly back to Kuala Lumpur, where I need to overnight, intentially this time. My only activity of note is a trip to the post office, where it cost me $43 to mail my stick to Florida. My flight to Hanoi leaves at 6:30 AM, which means I have to take the 3:45 bus to the airport, so it’s early to bed
Vietnam is refreshingly cheap: a deluxe room, nicely decorated and well-quipped, in the old city costs only $25. To ensure my room will be ready, I've arranged for an airport pickup by the hotel.
This is a return engagement: I was in Hanoi in 1997 when the city was celebrating the 25th anniversary of Operation Linebacker II, the Christmas bombing campaign, or, as they call it, the “Dien Bien Phu of the air.” Boy, has this place gotten touristy! Just about every business on my street is a hotel, travel agency, souvenir shop, or some other touristic business. The temperature is a very pleasant 72: the tourists are dressed like they are on a tropical beach and the local are dressed as if the ice age had returned and glaciers are imminent.
In the sightseeing department I concentrate on the stuff I skipped last time. First, the History Museum. Weathered statues and dusty pottery. Well worth a miss. Luckily, the exhibits lack English captioning so I am able to knock it off in thirty minutes. The highlight is the "imperial treasures," mostly stuff ginned out in the 19th and 20th centuries. Typical of the era, the Vietnamese monarchy was largely a European creation outfitted with regalia from the colonial prop and wardrobe departments.
Nearby is the Museum of the Revolution. Only for the most hard-core. It tells of the continuous thirty-plus year struggle for liberation from, in succession, the Japanese, French, and America imperialists. The principal lesson is that history is not kind to the losers: we learn that only good things were done by the victors and only bad things by their opponents. Some exhibits are so bizarre as to possibly be true: did Ho Chi Minh really carry a flintlock rifle in 1945? The best item is out in front: his 1950 Zil armored limousine, a gift from Stalin and powered by a 140 hp engine &mdash good for slow motorcades and not much else. The final of many dreary rooms is devoted to "Vietnam on the road to build a rich nation, a strong country, and a just and civilized society."
Finally, the Hanoi Hilton, closed during my prior visit. It’s the old French prison, now mostly torn down but with a section preserved as a museum. Almost the entirety is devoted to the suffering of patriots held by the French oppressors, but two rooms are devoted to the "American War." A précis: American pilots who waged sabotage warfare were arrested and temporarily detained here, where they enjoyed the best living conditions, expert medical care; music, good food, fresh fruits, Red Cross packages, books and exercise. One would think that only reason the miscreants wanted to leave was homesickness, but, of course, they all came to understand their crimes and appreciate the kind treatment received. Best artifact: an small American flag issued to pilots and printed with requests for assistance and promise of reward in all southeast Asian language except Vietnamese, described as a "begging flag."
I tend to eschew tours, but it’s a cheap and convenient way to travel here. It’s independent, meaning there is no formal tour group and travelers are grouped together solely for transport and ad hoc activities. I've booked a two-day trip to Ha Long bay. You've seen the pictures: tree-covered limestone pinnacles (karsts) jutting out of the water with red-sailed junks cruising among them. Last time it was so foggy I could hardly see a thing. My luck is no better this outing. I think there are only a handful of clear days a year, which is when all the postcard and publicity photos are taken.
Ha Long bay now sees twenty thousand tourists a day. The distance from Hanoi is not great, but to get there takes three and a half hours. We arrive at the pier along with, it seems, the rest of humanity. A fleet of passenger junks lies at anchor offshore. We transfer to ours: it’s not much to look at from the outside, but the ten staterooms inside are spacious and well appointed.
The routine is set: the junk armada, many with sails raised for photographic effect, motors a couple of hours through the bay and among the karsts while lunch is served. We moor outside a large cave and take a tender to visit it. It's OK, but not spectacular on the world cave scale. Then, a bit of kayaking around the bay, followed by swimming for the cold-hardy.
After dinner, there's not much going on. Along with the rest of the flotilla we remain moored through sunset and sunrise. As breakfast is served, we begin motoring back towards port. Lunch is ashore, followed by a return to Hanoi.
That evening I am on the overnight train to Lao Cai, gateway to the northern highlands. We are met at the station and driven an hour to Sapa, a former French hill station and now tourist central. It's out of season and freezing cold, but two days before Christmas there are plenty of Europeans here.
Aside from escaping the summer heat of Hanoi, the principal attraction here is visiting the ethnic minorities that populate the surround hills. Our morning activity is trekking — more of a country stroll — to Cat Cat, a Black Hmong village just a couple of miles distant. At the hotel gate are a gaggle of distintinctly dressed Hmong women waiting to accompany us. As we set out, one attaches herself to each us and wages "friendly conversation" in the form of a barrage of questions. Of course, it's all a sales pitch for the souvenirs they are carrying in baskets on their backs. The walk past terraced rice fields would offer great scenery if it weren't raining and foggy. Also, the crop already has been harvested so the predominant colors are the brown of the earth and the grey of the sky and water. It's all downhill which is good, for now.
In the morning, more fog, more rain, and another trek, this time to a Red Dao village. Total distance about six and a half miles, twice yesterday’s distance. Very muddy, and I can't see a thing. Finally, at one scenic point the mist briefly parts to reveal very nice scenery &mdash more terraced rice fields &mdash but not much color.
Lunch is in a village, then we continue on to another, with shopping stops on the way. A waiting van transports us back to town. As we drive the skies clear and the great scenery we have been missing unfolds, but just briefly. When we arrive back at town it is still enveloped in fog.
Most people return to Hanoi by the overnight train. I stay on another night with a different plan.
The morning brings blue skies and clear weather until the fog returns around 10 AM. At noon I return to Lao Cai but instead of going to the train station I get dropped off at the border. Lao Cai is one of two major border crossings into China.
I like entering a country on foot. You clear the departure area, walk across a bridge or no man's land, then present yourself at the other side. The white man's privilege lets me skip the lengthy queues of locals; I am probably the only big-nose they have seen all day if not all week. With a smile they wave me through and I step out onto the streets of Hekou, Yunnan Province, China.
The bus station is just a couple a blocks away. There is a direct bus to Kunming, the provincial capital, but I've already been and it's exactly the wrong direction from that I need to be heading. The next bus to Nanning, in the right direction, isn't until the following day so I board a bus to Mengzi (pronounced “Mun-zoo”) two hours up the new Kunming highway. The road is an impressive feat of engineering, a series of aerials spans and tunnels over and through the once almost impenetrable mountains of southern Yunnan.
In Mengzi I grab a sleeper bus to Nanning. Chinese sleeper buses have actual horizontal berths and I am sure are quite comfortable if you are 4'10” or under. I have survived them twice and manage to do so once more. Twelve hours later, at eight AM, we arrive in Nanning. It's a medium-sized city by Chinese standards, six million, but I already know there nothing really to see and it cold and raining so I decide to keep moving. But first I need some more money. To my surprise, the ATM in the bus station rejects my card. So do the next seventeen or so I try. I have to hike a considerable distance to find an ATM that accepts foreign cards. Serendipitously, along the route I encounter a railway ticket office and am able to purchase, using my perfect, non-existent Chinese, a soft-sleeper berth for the direct Guilin to Shenzhen train two days hence. So Guilin is where I am heading.
Back to the bus station. Departures to Guilin are every ten minutes; the ride is five hours.
Guilin is the starting point for cruises down the Li River through a forest of karsts, a landbound version of Ha Long bay. Last time in these parts I skipped Guilin and stayed in Yangshuo, the village that is the terminus for the riverboat trips. During that visit weather failed to cooperate, and most of the scenery stayed obscured by the haze and mist. Tomorrow’s forecast is for sunny skies.
[Not my images]
The riverboat trade is a government monopoly, so the only way to do it to book a tour and pay extortionate rates (the day trip is about the same cost as the two day Ha Long trip that includes a private cabin on a deluxe boat). Foreign tourists are piled in to a triple-decker, the largest type of boat, for the four-hour ride to Yangshuo. Conditions are good, but not perfect: although clear, there is the urban haze that characterizes modern China. Also, it’s cold, so I spend much of the time inside, darting out now and then for photos.
As one would expect in a culture bereft of cable TV, the Chinese managed to see all sorts of fanciful imagery in these peaks and named them accordingly: e.g.The Wakening Frog, Nine Dragons Playing With Water, Frog Crossing the River, Miller At Work, Tortoise Climbing Up The Hill, Lion Watching the Nine Horses, Camel Crossing the River, etc.
In Yangshuo I am astonished at the changes ten years have wrought. Last time there were only backpacker guesthouses and cafes. Boat passengers would disembark, walk past a few souvenir shops, then board their buses back to Guilin. Now, Yangshuo receives fifteen million visitors year, and has grown to match. The street from the river is now pedestrianzed and completely given over to tourism. There are zillions of hotels, large and small, countless restaurants (including McDonalds), and major thoroughfares lined with stores of every sort. The surrounding scenery is still very nice, though.
I am dropped off about 6:30 PM and walk a few yards to buy some breakfast pastry. On the way back, I feel a slight tug on my shoulder bag. I reach down to grab it, and it is empty! No one is nearby or fleeing. A master pickpocket has sidled up to me, taken the two items I had just placed inside at the top of the bag, scooped out the camera nestled in the bottom (with dangling shoulder strap), and disappeared unnoticed. All on an uncrowded sidewalk within twenty yards of my hotel!
That's why I don't carry an expensive camera. But it held my photos. Fortunately, I had switched memory cards after Sumatra, so it is Vietnam and today's pictures that are lost (except for a few taken with my pocket camera). I take minor consolation that there is little I could have done to prevent the crime short of soldering the camera to my chest. Well, I've been pretty lucky in life thus far; I hope this doesn't signal a permanent reversal.
I still have a day to kill. Most lists of “things to see/do in Guilin begin with the Li River cruise and rapidly fade from there. The city is surrounded by karsts. One smack in the middle is called Solitary Beauty Peak. China classifies tourism sights from A to AAAAA and prices admission accordingly. This one is rated AAAA and costs a whopping ten bucks to enter. Even accounting for grade inflation, it's overrated. You can climb to the top, where there is a temple and viewing platform. They make a big deal that prior to liberation, i.e.,pre-commie days, ordinary people weren't allowed in or up. I think if the bad old rulers had realized they could get ten bucks a pop, they would have reconsidered.
The sleeper train to Shenzhen is a sleek, plush tourist special, which explains why the ticket was so pricey ($67). We pull into a very modern train station that, after immigration control (Chinese need permits to visit Hong Kong and foreign visitors coming from Hong Kong need visas to enter China proper) connects to the Hong Kong metro system. The city — just farmland a few years — is the showpiece of modern China: wide streets, tall, shiny buildings, clean efficient subway, and shopping, shopping, and more shopping (and no political dissent). For Chinese holidaymakers unable to visit Hong Kong Disneyland, there are several large theme parks. I am here solely for transit, but do get a kick out of the design of my hotel room: the shower is a clear glass cylinder smack in the middle of the room.
My plan was to take the ferry that goes straight from Shenzen to Hong Kong airport, located on Lantau Island just opposite Shenzhen. The ferry ride only takes thirty minutes, but I learn that the dock is an hour drive from my hotel. Instead, I opt for a limo ride (actually a plush SUV) direct from my hotel to the airport. Just before the bridge to Hong Kong, we transfer to a similar vehicle with right-hand drive as Hong Kong apparently doesn’t allow Chinese vehicles (left-hand drive) to enter. At the transfer station one can check luggage and get a boarding pass, but Delta is not one of the participating airlines. We also enjoy executive treatment at customs and immigration — we don’t even have to leave the vehicle or haul out our luggage.
Hong Kong airport is one of the world’s best, and the fourteen-hour non-stop flight to Detroit in a 777 about as tolerable as it gets in coach. Three flights later (remember, I’m still working on mileage-building) and I am home.
Trip date: December 2010